Giving Care // Bernard Grant
The room settles, a desk, desk chair, and medicine cabinet come into view, and I'm burdened with a sense of responsibility I'd reserved for true caregivers. Parents, doctors, firefighters. People equipped for the emotional labor of caring for vulnerable adults. Not a twenty-something grad student biding his time in an entry-level job until he (hopefully) found something better.
Who knew sitting on a couch all day could be so exhausting? Keeping my ears alert for the rustle of a trash bag, the suction of a freezer door, a squeaking chair, any change in sound. All this to keep grown men from digging in trashcans, from playing with frozen food, from poking holes in the walls, and from taking the TV remote and then buying movies they can’t afford on their fixed government incomes. This isn’t to say the job is terrible. I rarely deal with the public, the agency trusts us to work unsupervised, and there’s plenty of downtime. Today, though, the day I tried to multitask and—rushing between the flip of a pancake—emptied E’s medicine pack into R’s hand, downtime is worry-time.
I worry I’ll lose my job and, consequently, my new car, on which I’ve only made three payments. Or worse. Maybe I’ll catch a murder charge, and since a prison sentence can’t bring back a dead son, R’s parents will sue me. I can just see it: ten, twenty years after the lawsuit, his parents, who will then be rich from having drained the agency and me, will pass me on a downtown street corner after my release. Since they won’t recognize me, thick-bearded, clothes worn to rags, they’ll have no problem tossing a crumpled dollar into my bucket.
Onto the guilt that stems from poisoning R, I load more – I’ve sent my coworkers to comb the carpet for the pill that’s currently dissolving in R’s belly, to give myself time to slip off to his bedroom.
Three men live in the house. None of them communicate verbally. Instead, with assistance, they type on a print-out of the alphabet pasted onto a square of cardboard, a letter board. Communication is teamwork. Holding R’s hand, I’ll push back until he pushes forward, toward his desired letters. No more than fifteen minutes have passed since he swallowed the pill. I sit on his bed and ask if he’s okay. He types, “No.” And, like the time he typed “Bernard is a god,” and the time he ask me if I loved him, I hope this is one of those situations the agency warned us about during training – where instead of merely holding a person’s hand when they push forward, we subconsciously guide them to type what we’re thinking. I ask again. Again, he doesn’t feel well.
I rush back to check what he’s allergic to and find the pill listed in his file. As I grab a flashlight and join my coworkers on the floor, I remind myself that seizure medications double as mood stabilizers. “Allergy” could just mean the pill hadn’t worked the way the doctor had hoped. I hope this is true. I can’t be sure. But what I do know is that I can’t handle two crises at once. E has just shuffled into the staff room. He shoots me a grin fitting for an obituary photo. Cheerful, alive. A face you’d miss. And because of me, the obituary will say: Family didn’t see E in his last hours. He died shortly after the seizure, having missed a dose of medication that ruptured his housemate’s belly, diminishing a group home from three to one.
Unsettled by his grin, I turn to the window, catch sight of a bird, white with a black collar on her puffed chest, perched on a backyard bush, the branch bent beneath her like a diving board. The fluttering of those wings, the curious cock of the bird’s head, remind me of the evening I found an injured bird, a fledgling really, while playing in my mother’s yard. The fledgling, whose left wing hung askew, was no smaller than the crows I chased every day, but its constant chirps made clear its infancy. I was a child myself then, no older than ten, young enough that I’d shout for help before solving a complex problem, like caring for a bird with a broken wing.
While on the line with Animal Control, my mother called out directions, aiming the phone at me as I echoed each step:
1. Poke holes in a shoebox.
2. Fill the shoebox with old t-shirts.
3. Set the bird inside.
4. Leave the bird alone, to avoid sending the poor thing into shock.
A half hour later, a white van pulled up to the house. A man hopped out, thanked us, and rescued my chirping patient. I didn’t have aspirations at that age, unless you count becoming a superhero, a job for which caregiving isn’t a chore. But when I started my job, caregiving became a chore, and I was glad, after E’s stroke last year, that I was new to the agency and of no use at the hospital. Taking notes, talking to doctors, updating parents, these struck me as intimate tasks, and I wondered where his family members were, his case manager. He wasn't my blood. This wasn't my career. I’d just earned my bachelor’s four months prior, started caregiving a month after that, and was accepted into grad school a week before the stroke. Before I graduated, I’d decided that working full time in an entry-level job would be temporary.
Merriam-Webster defines temporary (noun) as one serving for a limited amount of time. That’s about as much help as my coworkers.
When I started the job, I would ask my new coworkers how long they’d held their positions and would try to gauge from their responses how much I might like the job, how much I should actually give a care about caregiving. Assisting in bathing and dressing, I thought, were tasks I could get used to. Though I was right, though I conditioned myself to simultaneously wipe feces and consider my lunch, I couldn’t ignore the field’s high turnover rate. The people who left, I learned, weren’t lifers, but were less-than-a-year visitors, tourists, and I worried people hid something behind their five, ten, twelve year statuses.
What they hid, perhaps because they hadn’t noticed it, but more likely because they didn’t share my bitter outlook, was that they were stuck – not waiting until they fell into their careers, but waiting until they died or were too old to work.
Older caregivers are the most devoted. I’m thinking here of the senior citizen who calls the house on his day off to say there’s a storm brewing, and did we check the flashlights? Who, decades ago, was forced into bachelorhood when a trucker ran his pregnant wife off the road. Who spends half his shift on his feet, cooking, cleaning, playing with the guys. He’ll bring snacks, take them for walks and long drives. Check up on them.
Halfway through my shift, six hours after R swallowed E’s seizure pill, six hours during which E has thrown temper tantrums (toys, cups, a bongo flung across the living room), has bounced on the couch, giggling and clapping to classic rock, and now shuffles through the front door, back from his daily walk and ride to grab a bag of peanut M&Ms, chocolate smeared in his beard, I’ve checked on R twelve times, twice each hour. He hasn’t left his room. Hasn’t eaten. Hasn’t said he’s felt well. If he dies—he won’t die, but if he does—this won’t be the first time I’ve failed a life.
A wild, fist-sized rabbit.
This wasn’t long ago, a couple years. When I arrived at my friend's house, I ducked down into her basement bedroom and found her hovered over a cage, sobbing in rejection of her cat’s gift. The vet she called worried the rabbit would go into shock and asked her to bring it in. I offered to drive, but she wanted to wait for her boyfriend, who was due home soon.
I disliked ticking clocks, couple-hood even less. What did I like? I liked him, I liked her, but at the time, my heart was still raw, bitter, and I mistook their fondness for weakness. I’d sworn off dating for a while because, as the last girl I’d wasted my energy on had said, dating is teamwork, support-and-be-supported, and I wasn’t mature enough to care for anyone. Nearly a year had passed, and I still wasn’t ready, but I wanted to get that rabbit to someone who was.
An hour later, I was immersed in my homework while my friend sat reading on her bed. She was an English student. I was too. But I’d just discovered a craving to create the type of stories we studied and wanted her to help me assemble a story for class, the first story I’d ever attempted. Or maybe I wanted comfort, a presence nearby while I embarked on this new journey. I was jolted out of my messy construction by her sobs. Her boyfriend—thank God—appeared then, clomping down the stairs in muddy work boots, soaking up the emotion that pulsed in the room. He kissed her, held her, then they went to the backyard to bury the rabbit. Their housemates flocked out to watch. I wrote.
A seven-thirty knock at the never-locked door. The night guy comes in to swap twelve-hour shifts. I check on R, who still says he doesn’t feel well. He looks well, normal. Lying on his belly, his butt wiggling, his thumb in his mouth, he shouts letters to Pat Sajak, whose voice follows me down the hall and to the front door. At the doorway, my backpack slung on one shoulder, I turn and peer into the living room, watch E take his PM meds. Brief relief is replaced by dread when I step outside and the night guy says, “See you next week.”
Bernard Grant grew up in South Texas. He now lives in Washington State, where he is enrolled in the Rainier Writing Workshop MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University. He is a 2015 Jack Straw Writing Fellow. Other writing has appeared in The Nervous Breakdown, The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review, Kindred, and other journals. He has been a finalist for the Charles Johnson Fiction Award.